Responding to extreme climatic events

Climate change is causing floods and heat waves to become more frequent. This project investigates by which mechanisms animals can adjust to extreme climatic events, and whether the response is fast enough to avoid extinction.

In this project we combine theoretical and empirical approaches to investigate how animal populations might adjust to increasingly frequent extreme climatic events. Using theoretical models we will first explore under what conditions a response through learning is likely to evolve, which is by no means trivial as it will be difficult for organisms to detect that rare events are becoming less rare. We will particularly focus on how the rate of adjustment depends on a species lifespan, since longevity directly affects the potential for learning from past experience as well as the microevolutionary response to selection. Subsequently, we will use empirical data on a short- and a long-lived species to investigate whether such animals are able to adjust fast enough in the wild. Specifically, we will compare how an Australian songbird has increased its nest height to avoid overheating in response to more frequent extremely hot days with how a European shorebird has increased its nest height to avoid flooding of its eggs in response to more frequent storm tides and sea-level rise. These data sets offer the unusual combination that they are fully pedigreed, span multiple decades, and extreme events have occurred often enough for their impact to be reliably assessed. Finally, existing stochastic population models of these species will be converted to eco-evolutionary models to determine whether the species were able to adjust fast enough to climate change so that their extinction risk has not increased.